Sunday, August 26, 2012

North America's First Credit Union: Reflections on a Visit to the Maison Alphonse Desjardins

Ever since I first became interested in the history of the credit union movement, I've wanted to visit Levis, a suburb of Quebec City and home of the very first credit union in North America. Founded by Alphonse Desjardins in his home as the Caisse Populaire de Levis in 1900, the model pioneered in Quebec quickly spread and was instrumental in the establishment of the American movement.

However, in American historiography, the French Canadian element of the credit union story is treated as something of a prologue, and tends to conclude with Desjardins' meeting with, and inspiration of, Edward Filene in 1908. After that moment, the focus of the dominant narrative shifts to the work of the Filene / Bergengren team in the United States. While their story is vitally important to understanding the nature of credit unionism in the US, I've been quite curious to learn more about the work, life, and legacy of Desjardins.

Happily, I got just that chance during a recent family vacation to Quebec City, when I was able to convince my parents and partner (with promises of micro-brews and chocolate) to accompany me on a ferry ride across the St. Lawrence to Levis. The town itself, situated at the top of a steep cliff, has long been a working-class suburb of the provincial capital and, after climbing the long set of stairs leading up from the ferry dock, we headed towards the steeple of the Catholic church.

The stately white house's location at the edge of the church green was clearly convenient for members whose common bond was the parish, and the building is now prominently marked with a sign identifying it as "Maison Alphonse Desjardin." When we arrived, we were greeted at the door by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable bi-lingual docent named Patrick Lafrance, who took us on the (free) tour as soon as we arrived.

The house itself has been restored, thanks to the financial support of the Desjardins Caisse Populaire federation, to how it would have looked in 1906, and our guide mixed a great deal of fascinating Quebec social history into the tour, including a discussion of the distribution of electric lamps in the house (electricity was put first in rooms that could be seen from the street) and the black cross hanging in the kitchen (a symbol of the Catholic temperance movement, of which Desjardins was a supporter). Many of the artifacts in the house were original, and in each room our guide filled us in on the origins, functions, and social meaning of a great diversity of items, from cutlery to furniture to wallpaper.

The First CU Office!
After touring the other rooms in the house, through which the social, economic, and cultural context of North America's first credit union was established, our final stop was the small office out of which Desjardins and his wife, Dorimene, ran the Caisse Populaire de Levis in its formative years. Our guide made a point to emphasize how critical Dorimene was to its success, since Alphonse's job as the French language reporter for the Canadian Parliament meant he lived six months out of the year in Ottawa. As a result, Dorimene was primarily responsible for the successful operation of the Caisse for long periods of time, and she is now remembered as its co-founder.

Toking for Economic Democracy?
On the original desk sits the original ledger-book, a handsome, leather-bound volume that covers the years 1901-1908. Also heavily present in the office (and scattered around other parts of the house as well) are numerous pipes. According to our guide, it is believed that Desjardins bought himself a pipe for each Caisse he helped successfully found, which was well in excess of one hundred. Many of the books in the space are also original, although his correspondence has been moved to the archives of the Desjardins federation (which is also in Levis).

After thanking Patrick, purchasing pretty much everything available in the gift shop, and getting some amazing chocolate-dipped ice-cream at Chocolat Favoris, a shop a couple blocks from the museum, we hopped on the ferry and returned to Quebec City. However, leaving Levis did not mean our encounters with Desjardins' legacy were over; rather, unlike the American credit union pioneers, he has achieved a significant and recognizable place in Quebec's historical consciousness.

Fancy seeing you here...
The first real indication of this came as we walked through the streets of the old city from the Ferry back to our hotel. En route, we encountered an enormous, multi-story mural portraying historically important people from various eras on the streets of Quebec. It was quite the spectacle, so we stopped for a few minutes to take it in. As we examined it, we suddenly noticed a familiar face, and went over to look at the guide. Sure enough, Alphonse Desjardins was standing next to Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer widely credited as one of the founders of Quebec. In an American context, this would be like seeing Edward Filene or Roy Bergengren portrayed in a mural as a figure of equivalent importance to Lewis and Clark or George Washington.

This sense of the prominent place of Desjardins and the caisses populaires in the historical identity of Quebec was further confirmed the following day when we visited the Quebec history exhibit at the Museum of Civilization. In an exhibit whose subject stretched from the indigenous pre-history of the First Nations to the recent near secession from Canada, fully half of the display on the development of banking in Quebec was focused on the caisse populaire movement (including an original teller counter, sample checks, passbooks, ledgers, etc.), and visitors could listen to an audio version of one of Desjardins' speeches.

While I learned a great deal about the history of the Quebec credit union movement and Desjardins in particular, the biggest revelation to me from my journey was the weight given to the man and movement in the popular understanding of the province's history. In the United States, credit union history can hardly command a footnote in obscure academic journals, while, in Quebec, the movement's founder can be found painted larger than life in public murals and is well featured in the province's most prestigious history museum. Why the difference?

While there is much in-depth comparative work to be done, I think the relative historical prominence of the two societies' cooperative banking movements can be attributed to two major factors. First, the caisse populaire movement in Quebec was given nationalist meaning by many Francophone people itching under the domination of Anglophones. As the first Canadian banks were owned by the English elite and tended to put those interests above the interests of more working-class Francophone Quebecers, the caisses populaires were not simply ways for working class people to obtain credit, but they were also understood to be building a francophone financial system that could challenge the economic hegemony of Anglophone elites. Add to that the early movement's deep ties to the Catholic Church, which was a core Francophone institution (Anglo elites tended to be Protestant), and it is easy to see how credit unions in Quebec have gained historical importance due to their connection to one of the province's most long-running and central social tensions.

Second, it seems that the Quebec movement has promoted its historical importance in a much more intentional and strategic way than has the American Credit Union movement. Where the American movement's history museum was founded only recently, and is so woefully underfunded that its director spends much of her time doing financial, rather than historical, education, the Mouvement Desjardins has been solidly and consistently promoting its history for decades. Not only is their museum well funded enough to have full-time docents available to greet all comers, but they also employ two full-time historians whose research on Desjardins and the movement have yielded numerous resources both scholarly and popular (including comics books on Desjardins in both French and English). Without similar institutional support for their history, American public understanding of the deeply meaningful contributions credit unions have made to our society is virtually non-existent, and our movement's public standing is thereby substantially lessened.

In sum, I highly recommend a visit to the Maison Alphonse Desjardins, should you ever get the chance. Not only does it leave its visitors with a deeply enriched understanding of the origins of the North American credit union movement, but it also demonstrates the opportunities that can be cultivated when a movement decides to take the task of stewarding its legacy seriously.

The view from Levis ain't bad, either... All photos courtesy of Allison Curran

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog very nice and unique information related to credit union ,thanks for sharing such a useful information.